Durham University is an excellent university, but why do I still have to explain this to my friends?

By Jasmine Lo

I do not study marketing or business. I am simply an international student who has to deal with many a confused extended family member or curious friend all the way in Hong Kong or around the globe regarding my choice of university. I am also a Durham student who loves Durham, but I am tired of justifying my choice of university.

Durham University was not founded yesterday. Unlike some notable UK universities (both Warwick and York are only 50 years old), Durham has had plenty of time to establish itself. And yet, the name of the university does not reach as many people as it should. It is only when we invest time doing research on universities that we learn of Durham’s high academic standards and levels of teaching, as all 4500 non-UK students at Durham did. Indeed, this was how I first learnt of it.

If Oxbridge is the university equivalent of Campbell’s Soup, then Durham is, perhaps, The Covent Garden Soup Company: well-known in the UK, but not around the world.

On a UK league table, Durham is always in the top 10, and usually the top 5. However, on an international league table of 100 universities, Durham often settles in the bottom quarter. This position is not bad at all, but a look at the other universities which overtake Durham in a global but not UK league table should make us stop and think.

I asked twenty friends my age and twenty adults of varying ages living outside of the UK to be honest about their knowledge of this country’s universities. Each person stated which UK universities they had heard of and what their perception of them had been, prior to applying to university. Oxbridge and the University of London branches were well-known because of their famous alumni, strong academics, large university history, notable mentions in film/popular culture, and constant presence in articles, research, and academic publications. Only eight people had heard of Durham (with six saying they only knew that it was a UK university, two saying they had heard it was of high standard), and this was largely thanks to the collegiate system reminiscent of Oxbridge. They were not aware that Durham is so much more than that.

I recently completed an internship at an independent branding and corporate design agency in Paris, which has made me reconsider what makes a brand identity effective. Some brands are so successful they simply exist and draw business by a strong reputation and strong projection of image, without much need for advertising. Take a look at Campbell’s Soup, Marmite, or Coca-Cola, which all have tremendous international repute. Ultimately, universities are brands. The names of successful alumni are synonymous with the universities themselves. If Oxbridge is the university equivalent of Campbell’s Soup, then Durham is, perhaps, The Covent Garden Soup Company: well-known in the UK, but not around the world.

Durham’s recent University Strategy proposal for 2017-2027 is an assembly of aims to improve Durham. Vice-Chancellor Stuart Corbridge has voiced his desire to “globalise Durham and to make it a more significant player in our region, the UK and beyond.” New Pro-Vice Chancellor Professor Claire O’Malley highlights the need to “build strong networks internationally” in order to “strengthen the University’s global profile.” In a world graced by social media and easy connection, there exists an illusion that building “strong networks” ought to be the first step forward. I will only say this: from what I have learnt being a part of an agency that specialises in building global brand names, it is a strong brand identity which first and foremost earns the attention of the people. Those international “strong networks” will then naturally promote the university by its strengthened image. People talk about brands they remember.

Durham is, after all, a Russell Group university, with a rich history, successful alumni, a tremendously wide range of extracurricular activities, good exchange opportunities, high standards of teaching, and a strong sense of community.

It feels silly and unfair having to keep calling forth these ‘rankings’ to make others understand how much being a student at Durham means to me. We didn’t work this hard to achieve A*s for nothing. I don’t want to have my job application put aside because the employer fails to recognise a top university. Though league tables should not be the definition of success, I do believe that they provide a good starting point. Durham University ought not to remain in the shadow of Oxbridge and the London universities. It is, after all, a Russell Group university, with a rich history, successful alumni, a tremendously wide range of extracurricular activities, good exchange opportunities, high standards of teaching, and a strong sense of community. Market and promote Durham University by its own strengths, and project them loud and clear. Quality brand identity goes a long way; that I have learnt from my internship. Whilst statistics may present Durham as a world 100 leading university, in reality, more must be done to better place Durham in the public consciousness. May the changes endorsed by the 2017-2027 University Strategy prove a success.

Photograph: Ieuan Jenkins via Flickr and Creative Commons

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  1. Fred
    Aug 24, 2017 - 10:14 AM

    Has the author perhaps considered that a University is not an agency designed to place its students in graduate jobs, but in fact a place for them to receive an education. Education is a worthy end in itself for an institution, Durham has another primary function which is as a world class research institution in many fields. Frankly, the idea that the university is spending what I imagine to be huge sums, please correct me if I’m wrong, on brand consulting and positioning itself in a marketplace really appals me, when so many of its students and staff are in precarious financial situations. The idea that a University is a brand seems to me muddleheaded. In the academic world the university’s research output speaks for itself, save the money on the grossly overpaid vice chancellor and spend it on the students and academics instead.

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